Though rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia cases in Humboldt County fell from 2016 to 2017, health officials warn those sexually transmitted diseases and others remain common in the local area and should be something sexually active people take steps to avoid.
According to Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services and Planned Parenthood Northern California personnel, gonorrhea and chlamydia are the most common STDs in Humboldt County but reported syphilis case rates have spiked in recent years. According to a California Department of Public Health 2016 STD report released in September, reported STDs reached an all-time high across the state due to a spike in gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis cases from 2015 to 2016. That spike was also reflected at the Humboldt County level but according to Humboldt County DHHS-provided information, after steadily rising rates since 2010 reported gonorrhea cases fell from 249 in 2016 to 210 in 2017 and reported chlamydia cases fell from 751 in 2016 to 675. But that doesn’t mean these diseases will be gone any time soon, DHHS Public Health nurse Hava Phillips said.
“When you’re looking at rates of anything, over time they will fluctuate,” she said.
Phillips said if one “zooms out” to look at the data over a longer term than 2010 to 2017 — the time range of STD rates DHHS provided — there would be a different picture.
“The rates are still very much on the rise,” she said.
Despite the slight dip in gonorrhea and chlamydia rates, local reported syphilis cases — DHHS didn’t provide 2017 numbers — are rising, Phillips said.
Planned Parenthood Northern California senior education manager Toni Donovan said the Eureka clinic most commonly sees people test positive for gonorrhea and chlamydia.
“But we’ve seen a rise in syphilis in the last year,” she said.
There used to be none or maybe one person who tested positive for syphilis in a given year but now 10 to 15 positive results in a year is common, Donovan said.
“It is a huge jump from zero to that,” she said.
Donovan attributed rise in STDs in Humboldt County to the rise in popularity of anonymous “hookup” smartphone applications, substance use and abuse and limited access to resources and education due to the rural nature of most of the county.
“Anyone who doesn’t live in Eureka has limited access,” she said.
The sole Planned Parenthood facility in Humboldt County is in Eureka. There they offer STD testing, treatment options, sterilization procedures and sex education that depends on the age, gender and demographics of the audience, Donovan said.
“We want to teach people about risk reduction,” she said.
Donovan said Planned Parenthood personnel can’t force people to use condoms or stop shooting up narcotics but can promote best practices which includes connecting substance users with resources to quit, how to talk with sexual partners about STDs and how to get tested.
But there are other places besides Planned Parenthood that are run by DHHS that offer STD support, services and education, Phillips said.
“We do have an STD clinic,” she said; it’s across from the Humboldt County Courthouse on I Street in Eureka, and offers information and STD testing.
“It’s usually a fairly quick procedure,” Donovan said, adding that can depend on what diseases are being tested for.
“We also do anonymous partner notification,” she added.
She said some people who test positive for STDs find it awkward to let past sexual partners know that they may want to get tested so this program does so anonymously.
“It’s extremely important for people to know when they should get tested,” Donovan said.
She said some STDs don’t have signs or symptoms that usually galvanize someone to go get tested.
“Humboldt County has very high rates of sexually transmitted diseases as does California in general. If you live in an area with high rates, it’s important to get regular screenings,” Phillips said.
She said people who have “high risk factors” include people with anonymous partners, new partners or multiple partners, people with HIV, and men who have sex with other men.
“Getting tested regularly is absolutely one of the most important things that can be done,” Phillips said.
She added that notifying past sexual partners when one tests positive, communicating with current partners about STDs and using condoms are also important.
“Condoms still are the best ways to prevent sexually transmitted diseases,” Phillips said.
Resources for sex education are also limited.
The state used to provide funding for coordinator of sex education through the Humboldt County Office of Education. But the funding dried up in 2011, which resulted in the coordinator position — held then by Dr. Beth Chaton — to be eliminated.
Chaton now works for the Office of Education as its programs coordinator. She said that Planned Parenthood is now the only local entity providing sex education at local schools, but funding is limited. Chaton said that this leaves teachers having to pick up the task of state-mandated sex education, though Chaton said not all teachers are receiving training to do so.
“It’s a sensitive topic and people aren’t comfortable teaching it unless they have a lot of training or experience and want to do it. Even with training, some people are not comfortable talking about this with young people,” Chaton said. “... A teacher can actually do more damage if they are uncomfortable teaching. You really have to leave your own biases and judgment behind. You have to be really open and be able to communicate it.”
State education codes mandate students be taught sex education at least once in middle school and at least once in high school, which Chaton said is not enough. Chaton said that STD education is part of the mandated curriculum.
“The most common of an STD is no symptom at all,” Chaton said. “You can’t tell by looking at them if they have an STD.”
While some children might be uncomfortable talking about the topic with their parents, Chaton said parents can help to prevent the spread of STDs and teenage pregnancy.
“We know that the best prevention is having a plan for the future and not letting anything get in the way of that,” Chaton said. “Start those conversations early about what you want to do with your life.”
Go to goo.gl/onb3eB for more STD data from the California Department of Public Health, humboldtgov.org/330/Public-Health for more DHHS Public Health information and goo.gl/Hm8xo5 for Planned Parenthood Eureka information.
Hunter Cresswell can be reached at 707-441-0506 and Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.